Sunday, August 3, 2008

Wagner's Tristan and Isolde

I want to take back what I said about about this opera some time ago. Tristan And Isolde is certainly one of the great romantic operas. I'm not going to discuss it in detail here or now; if you care about great music and great opera--or if you want to understand the meaning of 'romantic', you should acquire the DVD in one way or another and watch it.

(Someone remarked, recently, that Wagner's music is all very well but the librettos are "stupid."
Name-calling is not an acceptable form of criticism. Whatever you make think about Wagner, he was not a stupid man. The operas I've just been discussing are brilliant works of art--even The Ring, which I don't care for and find incoherent on its own terms. Whatever its faults, it is not stupid.)

What is a 'romance'? As I remarked some time ago, a romance in medieval times was a story written in French, a romance language, i.e. a language based on the language of Rome. These romances acquired a certain character which is exemplified in a remark by a very proper, very moral English humanist of the late 16th century, Roger Ascham: profane tales, he called them, of "bawdry and open manslaughter," unfit for Christian consumption. Well, there you have it: a romance is a profane tale of love, sex and violence. It is a long way from the medieval romances to the new found subjectivity of romantic poetry and fiction in the 19th century.

Tales of love, sex and violence will never lose their popular appeal. It was the genius of Wagner to take the ancient materials of myth and legend and use them for his own modern purposes. Tannhauser is a critique of contemporary sexual hypocrisy. Both Tannhauser and Lohengrin attack Chritianity at its roots by showing us "the injustice of the skies." I'm still not sure I understand what The Flying Dutchman is all about but I took it in with rapt attention nevertheless. The tragedy of Tristan and Isolde seems timeless. I have still not seen Parsifal.

Here is the poem by Yeats, "The Cold Heaven" (published in 1914) that I referred to earlier:

The Cold Heaven

Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven
That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice,
And thereupon imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that or this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season
With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light. Ah! when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?

1 comment:

  1. It is widely accepted that many operas have stupid plots. Calling a plot stupid is not the same thing as calling the composer stupid. THE MAGIC FLUTE has a stupid plot, but it is one of the greatest operas ever written. Mozart was not simply brilliant but was able to work with Lorenzo Da Ponte, a librettist who was born Jewish. This was unheard of in the 18th century.